In 1965, during a time of lessened restrictions on the production of literary works in Communist Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel presented a bitingly satirical world of bureaucracy, ideology, and paranoia to the audience of the Theater of the Balustrade. They knew it only too well. The absurd misadventures of Josef Gross in a byzantine organization only nominally under his control clearly paralleled the surreal world of post-World War II governments in the Warsaw Pact. While Gross's predicament was amusing, the predicament of the citizens of Eastern Europe which it modeled was not. The play's over-the-top depiction of linguistic perfectionism gone terribly wrong struck a chord with the increasingly distressing consequences of trying to achieve the Communist ideal. It certainly hit too close to home for figures of authority. When the Husák regime came to power following the failure of the Prague Spring, Václav Havel's The Memorandum was banned from performance, not to return to the Czech stage for more than thirty years.
Yet now with the seemingly instantaneous implosion of the Communist dream a decade behind us, the play remains one of Havel's most produced works, set to the stage in translation all across the world. Contained within its zany dialogue and neurotic characters was something more than just a satire of Havel's era. From its pages leaps a warning against all totalitarian regimes; against artificial and political language, bureaucracy, apathy, unquestioned idealism and the power of corruption. It assembles the components of inhuman governance, components latent in every nation, and presents the aftermath without grief or bitterness, simply asking, "What went wrong here?" The question is no less relevant now than it was in 1965. While we remain human, capable of simple errors leading to such disastrous conclusions, it will remain relevant long into the future.
The Memorandum begins with a managing director for an organization, Josef Gross, reading his mail. One item, an important-looking memorandum, catches his attention. Holding it before him with a puzzled expression, he reads slowly outloud, "Ra ko hutu d dekotu ely trebomu emusohe, vdegar yd..." (Scene 1, pp. 3). Thus does Ptydepe introduce itself, a constructed language on which the play's plot hinges. Ptydepe is a language of precision, designed on the most logical of bases.
Its grammar is constructed with maximum rationality, its vocabulary is unusually broad. It is a thoroughly exact language, capable of expressing with far greater precision than any current natural tongue all the minutest nuances in the formulation of important office documents. (Scene 2, pp. 15)
It does this by decidedly unique means. Any word in Ptydepe must differ by at least sixty per cent of its letters from any other word; to introduce maximum redundancy and reduce the chance of any error
. Being a synthetic language, words in Ptydepe are devoid of any emotional overtones
s, variable meaning, or otherwise confusing elements of natural languages that make office communications so prone to error. The letter distribution is random
, the word lengths tend to be long
, and the grammatical relationships are complex
. This gives it an unfortunately steep learning curve. "Without a steadfast faith in Ptydepe, nobody yet has ever been able to learn Ptydepe" (Scene 1, pp. 15).
The program is an introduction of Gross's subordinate, Jan Ballas. Ballas, with his assistant the bulky, silent Mr. Pillar, aspires after a dream of perfection, a world where every office memo is infinitely precise, with no possibility of misinterpretation. Gross will have none of it. "I am a humanist and my concept of directing this organization derives from the idea that every single member of the staff is human and must become more and more human. If we take from him his human language, created by the centuries-old tradition of national culture, we shall have prevented him from becoming fully human and plunge him straight into the jaws of self-alienation" (Scene 1, pp. 12).
Unfortunately, through a rather intricate layering of subterfuge and manipulation, Ballas arranges things so that Gross has no choice but to allow Ptydepe's continued development throughout the department, or risk political embarrassment for a minor infraction of company policy. "Apparently, during the last inventory it transpired that you're in the habit of taking the bank endorsement stamp home for your children to play with" (Scene 1, pp. 9). Frustrated, but resigned, Gross decides to go with the flow and simply head to the newly formed Translation Center to have his memorandum translated.
His hopes were ill-founded. Arriving at the Translation Center, he meets with Otto Stroll, the head of the Translation Center. Through a series of irritating digressions Gross finally drives Stroll to the point and asks him to translate the memorandum. Stroll refuses, noting that Gross needs authorization. "We, the staff, do use Ptydepe, but we're no experts... so naturally, the exploitation and development of Ptydepe cannot be left in our hands alone. If it were it might lead to unwelcome spontaneity and Ptydepe might quite easily change under our very noses" (Scene 3, pp. 20). Thus must Gross acquire authorization from the Ptydepist, Alex Savant, an obnoxious, chauvinistic man who is the world's foremost expert on Ptydepe. While office members rush in and out, discussing the lunch menu and gossiping, Gross finally corners Savant to request authorization. Unfortunately, he must first present identification papers, which only Helena can grant. Her actual position is rather a mystery, "I'm the chairman... of what? Don't know of what just yet," (Scene 3, pg. 21) but she certainly has an appropriate knack for condescension. She will provide the documents, but only to those who have not yet received a document written in Ptydepe. "I cannot be expected to give the documents of personal registration to every Tom, Dick, and Harry without making damned sure they don't conflict with the findings of the last audit in his blessed memo!" (Scene 3, pp. 45). Gross must, of course, get the audit findings translated from Ptydepe. You can see where this is leading...
As they play winds itself up, circumstances grow laughably complicated. There are coupes, interrogations, public confessions, betrayals, every sort of political shenanigan one might expect. Each character manipulates the next ruthless to achieve his or her goal, trouncing over all remnants of dignity in an attempt to reach an increasingly distant goal. But worst of all, by the play's end things are no different than they began, save for the loss of the last traces of humanity in the organization. Plus change.
No character comes clear. Mr. Ballas, so wrapped up in his own enthusiasm to herald a new era of office communication, walks all over anyone in his way. His political genius does him little good when he finally reaches the top; he has no more idea how to stop the trainwreck of Ptydepe than any other. The members of the Translation Center are too wrapped up in their own privileges and petty pleasures to recognize what problems they are causing. The teacher of Ptydepe, Mr. Lear, is so oblivious to the impossibility of actually learning Ptydepe that he kicks out the only student he has left, Mr. Thumb, for translating 'Hurrah' as "Frnygko jefr dabux altep dy savarub gop texeres" instead of "Frnygko jefr dabux altep dy savarub gof texeres" (Scene 8, pg. 58). Mr. Gross, while working with good intentions, allows himself to be constantly manipulated and carried along, abandoning those who've aided him to his own ideal of dismantling the system. And everywhere general apathy allows the machine to continue chugging forward.
Representative figures are strewn about the play. Ptydepe is more than a language; it is a mission, a religion, a way of life, an unquestionable paradise just around the corner; oddly reminiscent of Communist ideology. Privileged members of the hierarchy celebrate their fortune with cigarettes and vodka right in the presence of their less well-heeled colleagues, who can't even sneak a single coffin nail for fear the staff watcher might spot them. Nothing may be acquired without a long wait, no decision may be made without a pile of paperwork to accompany it. To show disloyalty is an unthinkable offense, one that all must pursue with vigilance and prying interrogation. Confessors admit to a chain of crimes in which they took no part. Most ruthlessly portrayed is the general public, embodied in Mr. Gross's secretary, a vain woman only concerned with acquiring the newest item she must have like a good consumer. As long as she gets her bread and circuses, she doesn't care who's in power.
The Memorandum is a comical play, but it's also an uncomfortable one. For while the play is absurd, the characters within it are not. They act in perfectly believable, disturbingly rational fashions while reality distorts itself around them. Their story forces the viewer to reexamine hir own human relationships, their moral consequences, and the unwitting roles one plays every day in the bigger picture. Even now, almost forty years after its first production, the lessons it quietly teaches are still worth learning. By Havel's own thoughts, "[is not the spread of totalitarian systems is connected with] the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity? ... And do we [socialist bloc countries] not in fact stand (although in the external measures of civilization, we are far behind) as a kind of warning to the West revealing to it its own latent tendencies?" (The Power, London, 1989).
Havel, Václav. The Memorandum. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1980. Translated from the Czech by Vera Blackwell.Nikolova, Teodora. "Memo: Havel and His Play." Madison: University Theater, 2003.